Understanding and supporting SEMH pupils

Written by: Sarah Barlow | Published:
Outstanding support: Adelaide School provides education for pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and currently has around 50 pupils aged nine to 18 on roll (all images)

Drawing on the outstanding work of Adelaide School, a special provision in Cheshire catering for pupils aged nine and upwards, Sarah Barlow offers advice to mainstream schools on supporting students who face social, emotional and mental health challenges

I moved to Adelaide, an outstanding SEMH (social, emotional mental health) special school, 10 years ago. Concerned that I did not have a “special” skill-set, I set out on a learning journey to discover the secrets behind working with these challenging individuals.

In truth, so many of the key elements to working with these pupils are the core principles of all teaching.

However, we do need to reflect on some of the things we do...

Relationships

Relationships are at the core of all we do in SEMH education. As opposed to discipline, caring and respecting is what changes the behaviour of pupils.

Pupils with SEMH will have experienced challenging relationships at home or in school and learning to trust others is key to supporting pupils to be positive citizens with a desire to improve. Showing pupils that they matter and genuinely emotionally investing in their development makes the most significant difference for them.

When pupils at Adelaide are asked why the school is different to others they usually say: “Because the teachers really care.” It is not necessarily that we care more but that we explicitly show pupils that we value our relationships with them.

A teaching friend once asked: “What intervention should I use with a basketball-mad SEMH pupil in my class during assembly?” I replied: “Play basketball and talk to him.” She reported that this time building his relationship with her was enough to start to change his behaviour.

Sometimes we just need to find that one thing we have in common. I believe that SEMH behaviour is mostly about seeking a relationship with adults through attention – so let us make it positive attention!

Experiences

Many pupils with SEMH cannot see beyond the classroom, where they struggle with learning, or the space in the corridor where they work on a one-to-one basis with their teaching assistant.

Supporting pupils to embrace different learning opportunities, whether that be gardening, creating a sculpture or visiting a local place of employment, helps pupils to see that there is a life beyond their school. It builds the cultural capital of pupils, but also encourages them to develop the belief that there are things “out there” that they can access and that there is a reason to behave today.

Many pupils with SEMH lose out on these opportunities because their behaviour is a barrier, but for these pupils, for whom school is a place which lowers their self-esteem, engaging with things outside of school is often a turning point.

Furthermore, it encourages pupils to consider future life choices and careers. We run an annual summer school which the pupils can attend in the holidays so that they remain engaged with school during the break and experience many of the opportunities that other children have. We visit places like the beach and the park. These trips build resilience and self-belief – key skills to school life, learning and the world after school.

Celebrating the small stuff

There can be, at times, little to celebrate for our most disaffected pupils, so noticing the small things is key – that one time we notice that a child did not swear when they wanted to. We celebrate with them and this teaches them that they can get attention for positive behaviour as well as negative.

Many SEMH pupils find accepting praise very challenging, so finding quiet ways to praise at first can be key. For example, a simple pat on the shoulder or quiet whisper can be very effective in brick-by-brick building a pupil’s self-esteem. When times get tough, reflecting back on these moments can be significant in reminding a pupil of a time when they did get it right.

Giving SEMH children a job to do can be a useful strategy so that you have a way to notice when they get it right. We often say to pupils, “be good” but many of them do not know what being good looks like and we need to explicitly make them aware when they are behaving in ways which are positive and indicate why.

There is a pupil at Adelaide who likes to do jobs for others. I have frequently told him: “You are good at helping people.” But he just shrugs and walks away. Last week I heard him repeat to the school secretary, “I am a good helper”. My message had eventually got through.

Flexibility

SEMH is a vast spectrum of need and pupils are very different. We need to understand our pupils and then meet their needs in a responsive, reflective and flexible way. The provision we offer pupils daily has to change to meet the needs of the children in our care.

In my experience, sticking to a plan is rarely positive for the pupil or the staff involved. Many of the pupils we work with have rigidity of thought, so modelling a flexible approach teaches pupils that there are other ways to be. If staff battle with pupils with hard and fast rules, the result is often detrimental to all.

To give you a recent example, a pupil had had a disastrous haircut and he was so embarrassed that he did not come to school for several days. We have a no caps in school rule, but to get him back in school and learning I allowed him to wear his cap. He told the other pupils why he was wearing his cap and they showed some empathy.

If we had not allowed him to wear his cap he would have missed out on learning for weeks. How would that have helped anybody? Finding a balance between boundaries and flexibility is a challenge, but one we should work hard to achieve. My advice is always to step back and think about what you want to achieve out of any given situation.

Wellbeing

Much of the work we do in school is about mental health and emotional wellbeing. For pupils who have coped with challenging life experiences, it is important for them to understand that their feelings and emotions are normal and valid.

There are many more boys in the SEMH population than girls and we are all aware of the statistics around young male suicide and the issues with gangs and knife crime. Improving pupils’ understanding of themselves is key to developing their intrinsic desire to be the best they can be and to make positive life choices.

Pupils at Adelaide understand that mental health is as changeable as our physical health and will talk about ways this can be improved. We have a very active pupil safeguarding group who work closely with our local safeguarding board. Their input into how we can keep them and their peers safe is vital in the development of our school.

Visitors, trips and events focus on positive wellbeing. Parents and carers are also very much involved in our school life as we have an active Parent Group and lots of events for families throughout the year. We nurture and support in the same way as a family does. School-leavers often come back to share successes or to seek support in one way or another. One pupil returned to ask us to remind him how to tie his shoe laces as he had a job interview – it wasn’t just about the shoes!

Conclusion

Working with pupils with SEMH is a challenging job. It is hard not to take some of the things SEMH pupils do personally, but it is important to remember that much of their behaviour is not about us, it is about them and their journey. I believe it takes a team approach to support children with SEMH, as well as a sense of humour and a great deal of resilience.

Do not ever be afraid to admit that some days feel like mountains and others like ski slopes! Keep the faith that you will make a difference – even if it is in just a little way.


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